Sunday, 20 September 2015

[not very] Shorts: Are We Prog?

[reply to naughty Prof. Rebellato]

In his latest blog on theatre, while praising a new play (which I haven’t seen), Dan Rebellato mischievously suggests that the impulse to write a naturalistic country house play in 2015 is quite punk rock, and consequently, all the Men in the Citieses and This is How We Dies and This is How You Will Disappears are all just so many Yes albums.

Obviously he doesn’t really suggest that at all, but his essay does raise interesting questions, and more interestingly uncovers some fascinating underlying assumptions in the process.

There are various different ways to approach his proposition.

First: speedy rebuttal – Rebellato listens to Roadrunner by Jonathan Richman, credits it to the (historically loose, ill-defined) US “punk” “movement”. Then, without drawing a breath, he notes that punk killed prog. Well, sort of. Except it wasn’t US punk that killed prog (Roadrunner was, after all, recorded in 1972; *before* the height of prog.). As such, the definition of punk he’s using: “connecting music back to the simpler virtues of rhythm, melody, countercultural energy, and youth” is revealed as a false opposition to whatever sins prog/experimental theatre commits/ted.

Yes, there is a narrative in which UK punk “kills” prog rock, but the reasons UK Punk was popular – and therefore able to be described as having killed another sort of music – have nothing to do with the virtues listed in Rebellato’s definition of American punk.

We could go on for much longer about what those things were, but it wouldn’t be terrible to just say “haircuts” and run away.

The second way to disagree takes longer:
*I know* Dan was mostly sort-of joking + being fun-ly provocative (precisely to people like me, who IN NO WAY want to imagine that Chris Brett Bailey is really some sort of Ian Anderson).  But, I think the two poles he offers are instructive. Firstly, I think they’re a mistake. I think they’re a mistake because the theatre I’ve been seeing recently spans roughly 2,500 years. From the Oresteias of Rob Icke, Adele Thomas, Rory Mullarkey and Aeschylus, through Hamlet is Dead... and Lanark, up to, say, Some People Talk About Violence and Seeping Through.

From this, we might at the very least suggest that the musical comparisons demand a similarly long lineage. All the way from guessed-at reproductions of bronze age music through medieval, renaissance, classical, romantic, and even unto modernity.

And, in thinking like this, I’m reminded of that bit in Simon Stephens’s Song From Far Away where Willem describes talking as “just posh breathing,” and remarks that the human animal first communicated by song. (From which, we might also consider the way that original productions of Greek “plays” may in fact have been more like liturgical, or dirge-like operas, than crisply spoken verse dramas.)  Anyway, my point in this bit of the argument is that The History of Theatre might more fairly be likened to The History of Music.

And, similarly, there’ll be a bunch of stuff that got written down, and a – probably much vaster – tradition of stuff that didn’t. And there’ll be a load of oral tradition and folk songs, which did or didn’t get transmitted across the ages *accurately*. And a load of stuff that we know of the past now, which is probably only the most recent iteration of something that had been being passed down for generations before someone thought to invent a system for writing it down, and even then, that system for writing it down won’t have been prefect, and each village or town will have had its own versions, and, and, and, etc.

This not only highlights the inadequacy of the somewhat limited Either Punk or Prog. game, it also resurrects that other perennial binary favourite “play or performance?” And this is why comparing modern music to theatre is tricky. In modern music, a recording can be said to be the definitive article. Particularly in the era of Punk‘n’Prog, where it is as much about the albums versus singles as it is even remotely connected to the live performances. In theatre you can definitely – using Dan’s definition, temporarily – have a “prog” production of a “punk” play. I’m not entirely sure if – unlike in the musical equivalent – you could have a “punk” (i.e. naturalistic country house) version of a “prog” play (unlike a punk cover of some prog, which would be theoretically simple).

This discrepancy, for me, nails down what I find difficult about the comparison. Apart from its imprecision, and mischievous co-opting of decontextualised virtues (in one case) and hazily recalled vices (in the other), what it’s really about is spin that doesn’t really map unless willed to do so.

Is any theatre punk? It depends how you define it. Is any theatre an exhilarating three minute, ear-splitting burst of spirit triumphing over talent that you can throw yourself around to? Very little if any. Is it a short-lived moment from the late seventies that gained a massively disproportionate amount of press compared to the numbers of people who saw it? Probably.

Similarly, does most theatre take hours, is best watched sitting down, and does it involve great displays of virtuosity from everyone involved? Yes. Is all theatre more prog than punk by these metrics? Absolutely.

My third point of disagreement is this: “Is our current distaste for fiction depriving us of something persistently valuable in the surprise we find in immersing ourselves imaginatively in a fictional world and the joy of the surprise, the revelation, the twist, the reversal? What actually is our problem with fiction (or at least fiction that doesn't announce itself to be fiction)? What are the conditions in which we might see - and politically approve - a revival of clunky what's-round-the-corner plotting?”

In theatre terms, I do not recognise *AT ALL* the “current distaste for fiction” described above. I really don’t. I go to the theatre a lot, and I see a fuck tonne of fiction. And I really like it*.

Dan’s argument stripped to its basics runs:

“I and many others have championed the wave of playwrights and theatre companies who have continually striven to be formally experimental, to find new forms for new times, to engage in puzzling, cryptic, complex, metatheatrical reflections on the means of telling more than the story told.”

“nothing in what I am writing here is intended to doubt the virtue and value of formal experimentation in theatre.”

“what punk did in the late seventies was to kill prog.” [see: a long way above]

“prog was a form of formal experimentation in rock.”

“There were some good things in prog, probably, but... something of rock’s joy and power was lost.”

“Are we prog?”

“Are we, in our interest in formal experimentation and metatheatrical sophistication, the ones who are losing track of some of the theatre’s BASIC virtues?”

“Formal experimentation can be emotionally devastating, involve remarkable craft, elegantly elaborated fiction, and extraordinary storytelling”

“The well-made play is not theatre in its rawest state; it’s just another form, but one that offers very particular pleasures and joys in a very refined form”

Which, as we can see, is already a pretty circular argument – which, let’s remember, Dan is kidding about – but...

“Are we prog?”

No. “We” (the enjoyers of experimental theatre as well as other things) are not prog. At least, not the way that I see it. Obviously this tribalism might appeal to the odd naturalistic-play fundamentalist who wants to seem roll‘n’roll, but really that’s an argument about pretension, and arguments about pretension in theatre are as much a zero-sum-game as they are in pop music. Is standing on one-leg playing the flute while dressed as a wizard more or less pretentious than dressing in leather and proclaiming yourself an anti-christ?

In quite a vital way, *all* theatre is about pretending, and, ultimately there’s no way of that not being silly if someone wants to see it that way. All theatre is silly, as are punk and prog, if we want to go down that route.

Punk’s chief (original) virtue, if it had one, was – I think – that it was frightening. Deliberately.

Theatre very rarely frightens anyone *as a thing*.

Once we’re *inside* theatre, it can maybe then sometimes be frightening – either by way of ideas or effects – but you have to have already submerged yourself fully in the wider construct that is theatre for this to work. The idea of theatre is not overtly frightening to people in the same way that punk was.

Moreover, let’s be honest, most of theatre is *really nice* anyway. It maybe afflicts Quentin Letts with its swearing and its homosexuals and public subsidy once in a while, but theatre is very rarely irresponsible. It certainly rarely wears a Swastika for shock value. It doesn’t really hate everything. It doesn’t want to destroy passers by. It doesn’t hate its own useless generation.


In thinking about this (and glossing over almost everything in my screeching need to finally post *something*), I have wondered what theatre that was like that might be like. I wonder, for example, how the fuck it would get funding if it wanted its audience to fuck off. And scrawled “WE DON’T CAAAAAAARE” over diversity and outreach objectives.

I’ve also thought about how white and male both punk and prog are. And how both are phenomena firmly attached to one decade which ended 35 years ago. And how both of these things are problems.

Let’s be honest, nothing can be punk anymore, except by approvingly assuming to the word to be able to move past the musical movement and for the attitude – streamlined – to be applicable to *other things*.

If we’re honest (and let’s be honest, at least), aren’t GodspeedYou BlackEmperor (for example) kinda “prog”? And aren’t they actually more dignified than, I dunno, Green Day or someone?

I think I’ve run out of steam on this front.

So: are we prog?

I think I refuse the premise/s of the question.

[the two versions of the Beethoven adaptation of a Scottish Folk Song, one performed in English, one in Russian, are intended to tie in to a further point I never quite got round to making about the range of music over the centuries and the range of theatre over the centuries, and how much of it was kinda untouched by either binary, but does contain an endless wealth of reinvention and reimagination and transition in performance and so on... ]

* Indeed, I have a borderline morbid horror of the non-fictional. Especially when it relates to personal traumas suffered by the performer. There is a lot of that about too, at least in Edinburgh, and I can’t bloody stand it (there are exceptions which prove this rule, but...)

**Not one punk single ever actually prevented some double concept album about Middle-Earth being made. Did Punk really kill Pink Floyd? No. Did Punk explode on the pages of the music press and the nation’s fashion consciousness? Obviously. Were there all that many punks? Hard to say, now, innit? I mean, it was really a *sub-culture*. And “proper punk” only lasted for what? Three? Four? years, tops (1976-1979).

1 comment:

Dan Rebellato said...

Well yes. I agree with you; the argument doesn't really work and isn't really intended to work, at least not to be taken literally. As you admit, I'm being playful and provocative and don't think that advocates of formal experimentation are basically all in the same camp as Emerson Lake & Palmer. It's an historical nonsense: it would mean that Bach was prog and Berlioz was prog* and Steve Reich is prog and Pinter was prog and Picasso was prog and Euripides was prog and and and. So no, of course it's not right to say that formal experimentation makes you Peter-Gabriel-era Genesis.

I also don't really think that it's a strict binary. You can have melody and rhythm and youth and energy even in prog. 'One of These Days' by Pink Floyd for example. And, most of all, it makes very little sense to pluck a musical battle from the late 1970s and assume it can accurately describe the dynamics of our own theatre.

So yes, it's just meant to be a provocation and it's clearly worked. Thank you for being provoked.

That said, I'm not sure the thesis is as dismissible in all the ways you say. Some of your disputing of my musical history (like the kind of 1970s industrial action that Jeremy Corbyn is going to return us to) I would counter-dispute. The point about Roadrunner dating from 1972 is a red herring, because (a) it's still clearly hitting out against psychedelia and concept albums and overproduction and so on and that had been going on for at least five years at that point and lay the foundations for prog and (b) I could have used The Ramones first album and made the same point. Second, no of course punk didn't kill prog. But in terms of popular taste, critical esteem, etc etc., it was a turning point. It would be hard to say that prog continued to be a major creative force much beyond 1978 and that's in part because a lot of the bands seem to have recognised that the energy had gone out of the movement.

And then, I think you maybe deliberately miss the bigger point that I do think it's unusual to see a play like The Gathered Leaves these days. That's partly tendentious because the play is deliberately anachronistic in some ways. But when I say that I think there's a distaste for fiction, I'm not trying to pretend that no one tells fictional stories - that would be nuts - but rather than very often and in the most interesting theatres when fiction is presented - as in all the example that you mention - it's presented in a way that acknowledges its fictionality. The Oresteia (Almeida AND Globe) is not in any conventional sense illusionistic.** Carmen Disruption is fictional but in a presentational/no-4th-wall way. Lanark was fictional but the theatricality and cross-casting and basic kinda chutzpah made it feel like we were all being acknowledged out here in the audience. And that's great - I'd have hated a naturalistic Lanark, whatever the fuck that might have been, but I'm just noting what I think I'm seeing as a withdrawal from fiction as fiction. But hey, you see a fucktonne more theatre than me, so I may just have seen the wrong stuff.

But but but but but. If I'm right that there's a withdrawal from 'let's imagine that stuff on stage is really happening' theatre, then the question still stands: what is it that we find distasteful about imagining or pretending that the fiction is happening in front of us? If I'm wrong, of course, then there's no question to answer... though I'm not prepared to abandon the thesis just yet.

*Actually, now I think about it Symphonie Fantastique is about as prog as it's possible to be.